Refusing to conform to the music industry's ideals, today the internet's own girl has a relationship with technology that's more strained than ever
Words: Dylan Muhlenberg | Illustrations: Nena Maree
Having landed in Cape Town 12 hours ago, Mathangi "Maya" Arulpragasam arrives at the Black Major press day sans fanfare. Only half an hour late and with an entourage comprising a DJ, a pair of backup dancers and her manager, she's here to discuss her critically acclaimed film Matangi/Maya/M.I.A, which will be screened at The Encounters South African International Documentary Festival, as well as her two performances in Cape Town and Johannesburg alongside local acts K-$, Jakinda, Angel-Ho, Doowap, Dear Ribane, Phatstoki and Buli.
Age-ambiguous in a pastel pink and turquoise tie-dye T-shirt, chunky pink sneakers with frill sock detail, tight black jeans and fine yellow gold jewelry, Maya's tousled ombre hair and lightly made-up face make it impossible to correctly guess her 42-years without a Google.
This is just one disconnect though. The largest anomaly is how the problematic popstar doesn't fit into the industry's idea of what she's supposed to be. Instead, the self-styled star is the internet's own girl, crediting her rapid rise to stardom to platforms like MySpace and Napster. Nowadays Maya feels a lot differently about the technology that helped launch her career...
But first there's a comparison between the plight of the modern-day musician and the gentrification she sees surrounding us where our interview takes place in lower Woodstock, and says that one of the problems with popular music today is that there's no alternative or underground scene; that the industry is too focused on pushing a marketable product instead of artistry.
"You make a song this week and next week you're queuing up to become this sugar-coated, vanilla, Spotify star. It happens almost instantly. The need to cultivate an identity, to own your scene and culture is important. My trajectory in the music industry was similar to someone coming from here, as opposed to someone in England at this present time."
With a camera fixed on her since early childhood Matangi/Maya/M.I.A is the result of 700 hours of footage that covers the star's life from dancing child to precocious art student to Elastica's entourage and finally a musician at the height of her powers. To put that last bit into perspective, Maya is the only artist in history to receive nominations for all five of Academy Award, Grammy Award, Brit Award, Mercury Prize and Alternative Turner Prize.
Watching the somewhat amateurish, shaky, handheld footage it seems Maya always knew she'd be a star, and perhaps it's because of this that she's not easily seduced by fame and has instead used it as a means to highlight what's important to her.
"My identity politics is lots of different things and now I can talk about it a bit better. It's not predominantly gender based, or even race, but more economic, or where you come from."
Maya explains that being able to attend Hollywood events one night and be in the ghetto the next has been crucial to her existence as an artist, and having access to both these worlds allows her to do things like dispel stereotypes and bring attention to the refugee and migrant experience. It also results in better music, and so whenever a manager has tried to influence her focus, pushing her to corporatize or package herself as something more palatable for the market, they've been promptly fired.
"If you're a brand with 100 people working and touring with you, you lose the freedom of being in a bedroom with a mic and a tape recorder, which helps you understand the power of music in a different way. That's a more important tool, especially where nowadays everyone is a CEO or a brand and wants to monetise themselves."
While Maya's always been unapologetically committed to her cause, it's her distinct high-energy sound – a whooping, raw vocal over sometimes melodic other times discordant beats broadcasting messages of poverty, revolution, gender, war and violence, which has the listener wanting to either dance or hurl a petrol bomb.
Criticized by Sri Lanka's foreign minister that she'd better stick to music not politics, it's the very fact that Maya isn't a politician that makes her message that much more powerful, as it comes from a place of lived experience. Not that all would agree…
Authenticity is something that comes up a lot in the documentary and whether it's Maya being asked by Bill Maher how someone from Sri Lanka "sounded like Mick Jagger?", a cousin questioning her struggle credentials, or the 'radical chic' hatchet job in the New York Times, one's reminded of the Mahatma Ghandi quote: "first they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, and then you win."
Despite a celebrated career, with the last of the Tamil Tigers arrested and the civil war in Sri Lanka now over, Maya has now turned her focus to a much bigger, more insidious enemy: the internet.
"I feel the Tamils and the Tigers lost, or became unheard, because they weren't really internet savvy. The Sri Lankan government helped build some of the systems in Silicon Valley, knew how to use it and have done the same thing that Cambridge Analytica is now famous for doing with the American elections, but back in 2009 already. They used Bell Pottinger and it eventually took South Africa for them to quit. But when they did it they were getting results because all they had to go against was me, a celebrity talking, so it was a pretty easy job with the millions they had to spend."
Disheartened by how the internet has been manipulated, Maya has found herself drawn to the worlds of Julian Assange, Edward Snowden and Wikileaks and has once again been accused of being on the wrong side of the fence.
"I was someone who was so in love with the internet and so optimistic about it, championing it to young people because I believed in it. I wouldn't have made it without the internet. I wouldn't have been heard without people sharing my MP3s. Then I realised what was happening and how it's eventually going to happen to everyone."
That night Maya plays her first show to a South African audience who Uber to the event, display digital tickets on their phones and later live-stream hits like 'Boyz', 'Galang' and 'Paper Planes' to the social communities they've built. It's clear everyone is having a good time, but one can't help to think how many of those in attendance actually engage more deeply with some of the messages, and that if the civll war in Sri Lanka felt foreign, how much closer this new threat actually is.
As a documentary Matangi/Maya/M.I.A helps contextualize things for the casual listener, and in a world that's growing increasingly afraid – tightening borders, building walls, voting BREXIT and Trump – a world that chews up and spits out artists when they're no longer of any use to it, it's refreshing having a problematic pop star like M.I.A doing things her way.